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Supporting STEM, inspiring future engineers

Nov. 13, 2019
Christine LaFave Grace sits down with Dee Karabowicz, a mechanical engineer for Thales Defense and Security in Aurora, Ill., and co-program director with the FIRST LEGO League Junior program in Chicago's far western suburbs.

Christine LaFave Grace sits down with Dee Karabowicz, a mechanical engineer for Thales Defense and Security in Aurora, Ill., and co-program director with the FIRST LEGO League Junior program in Chicago's far western suburbs. They discuss how Dee’s experience with the FIRST program inspired her to follow an engineering career path, and the impact that current professionals can have on the workforce of the future. Get involved with FIRST LEGO League in Illinois here: https://www.firstillinoisrobotics.org/


Amanda Del Buono: Welcome back to another episode of Manufacturing Tomorrow’s Workforce. As always, I’m Amanda Del Buono here greeting you. Today, Christine LaFave Grace sits down with Dee Karabowicz, a mechanical engineer for Thales Defense and Security in Aurora, IL, and she also just took over as a co-program director with the FIRST LEGO League Junior program in Chicago's far western suburbs. Christine and Dee discuss how Dee’s experience with the FIRST program inspired her to follow an engineering career path, and the impact that current professionals can have on the workforce of the future.

Here’s their discussion.

Christine LaFave Grace: Supporting STEM—shorthand, of course, for science, technology, engineering and math—in schools and communities is a high-profile priority for a growing number of manufacturers and other industrial production companies in the U.S. Whether that takes the form of sponsoring a local high school robotics team or hosting an on-site event to let students see what a manufacturing floor today looks like, this kind of engagement often is seen as a way to strengthen community connections and maybe, possibly spark the kind of interest that inspires students to pursue studies that could land them a job in local industry down the line. 

Does that really happen, though? Amid competing demands for resources both as a company and individually, how worthwhile is it for manufacturers to get involved in outreach at the high school, or even junior high or grade school level? Dee Karabowicz has a unique perspective on that question—she's a mechanical engineer for Thales Defense and Security in Aurora, Ill., and she also just took over as a key industry leader and partner with the FIRST LEGO League Junior program in Chicago's far western suburbs. Beyond that, Dee actually got her start in engineering as a participant in FIRST robotics challenges as a student. Dee, thanks so much for speaking with me today. 

Dee Karabowicz: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.

CLG: To start off, can you tell me a little bit about how you got involved in the FIRST program as a student? How did you become aware of it, and what sparked your interest?

DK: So, the first time I ever heard about FIRST programs was when I was in elementary school. As a fifth-grader in an advanced math program, we were approached by the middle school computer science teacher to see if we’d be interested in joining a FIRST LEGO League team that they were planning to start up the next school year. That first year as a team there were six of us, there were four boys, two girls. None of us knew what we were doing, we had a teacher who was just starting to learn the ropes, and we had six mentors who were all in middle school as well and were trying to figure out what we were supposed to be doing. The six of us the first year had so much fun, we came back the next year, and then the next year. As we kept coming back, our program kept growing, past what our school supported, and developed into a larger program in our area.

CLG: Can you tell me a little bit about what your participation looked like at that time? What kinds of activities and competitions were you involved in then?

DK: We were starting out at a really early point in the FIRST LEGO League programs in Illinois. So, our competition was the six of us working together to build a LEGO robot and then programming it using the LEGO Mindstorm software. We were building and programming our robots to complete small tasks on a larger field that was 4-foot by 8-foot that we would work on throughout the course of the season. So, we worked for four months during the course of that fifth-grade school year to try to solve these missions. And none of us had ever built robots out of LEGOs before, most of us had never tried to program anything before, and so, we were learning from the ground up that foundation of how you can do these things, of how you can solve these problems together.

CLG: That’s really cool. How did your involvement in FIRST help cultivate your interest in engineering and make you realize that, “Hey, this is something that maybe I could spend my life doing?”

DK: It was a slow development. I’ve always been math- and science-inclined. I always liked taking things apart and putting them back together, and I liked the idea of troubleshooting, and the idea of problems and working through things to find solutions. But I had never been engaged for that long on the same problem, and what it did was it worked to kind of put out there that you can get the social aspect, you can get the teamwork, you can learn how to work with different people, you can be learning new skills and trying to solve a problem together, and then have a tangible demonstration of that problem you were solving‑that is what engineering is, and at such a  young age, it’s great. It gave us this tangible exposure to what we could be doing for the rest of our lives if we so choose. As we kept getting older and as new teams formed within us and as our challenges grew age appropriately, that same trend continued. And then, all of this was coupled with the fact that we had parents and teachers and older students who were all also engaged in what we were doing, and they were starting to mentor us. They were showing us different things we could be doing, or what we could be doing in future careers, and guiding us through this process that’s difficult in the first place, but with mentors and adults helping you, it gets easier.

CLG: That’s so interesting, too, because one of the things we hear from manufacturers is your bringing younger people on board and even if they have the great hard skills, the technical skills, the knowhow, they’ve come through great education programs, sometimes though, the soft skills, the problem solving together, that kind of collaboration sometimes is lacking a little bit, and what a great opportunity through programs like this to nurture those, as you say, so early on.

DK: I think it’s essential to develop teamwork skills early on, otherwise it’s hard to be successful in school, even through middle school and high school, up through college, if you choose to get a college education, in your job. It’s hard to be successful if you don’t know how to work with people, and if you can’t be a good team player as well.

CLG: So, you mentioned having mentors, older students as well as adults and parents. Were industry players involved? Did you have anyone coming in from local manufacturing companies to help support you, too? And if you didn’t, what kind of value as a mentor, as a leader now, do you see in engaging there?

DK: We were so early on that we didn’t have a lot of mentorship. Our mentorship, a lot of it, came from technically inclined parents and teachers that were supportive of what we did, but now, 18 years later, the program’s evolved. And so, running parts of the state program as well, we have people in industry come in, and they have partial-day participation and interaction with teams, but then, teams also have more consistent engagement and mentors throughout their season. And it is critically important, because that’s how the students know what they can do. Otherwise, engineering and technical things and being a doctor and being in manufacturing is just some black hole that they don’t know much about. They might know a shop-level: “Oh, I’m going to be an engineer. I’m going to solve problems.” But, what types of problems?

CLG: In your experience, are there any physical examples you’ve seen of a student who made that connection, or an industry professional who got involved as a mentor and again you learn so much as a mentor, as much from that side of the equation as the mentee side of the relationship?

DK: Yes, there are so many tangible examples of that. One of the key roles of the middle school robotics program is that teams have this capstone event that they go to that’s either a qualifier or a state tournament and they get interviewed by judges, and those judges are mostly technically inclined, so they have programmers talking to them about their robots, they have mechanical engineers talking to them about how they designed and built something, they have people in the field talking to them about their innovative projects that they worked on throughout their season. And so, you get these people that relate exactly to what you’ve been working on for months, and you can talk to them on a different level, and you can engage with them on a different level as a student, and you can see what you could be doing.

CLG: Wow, that’s so powerful for both sides.

DK: It is, and it’s wonderful, too, as an adult looking back on this now and working with teams, I can see when things click with kids, when they understand “Oh, engineering and manufacturing. It takes iterations, you’re not going to get it right the first time, you have to keep trying, and this mentor has shown me how—that it’s OK to fail, it’s OK to recover and try it again.”

CLG: That’s awesome. From a practical perspective, if an individual or a company is looking at possibly getting involved in a program like this from FIRST, from LEGO League, in your experience, what does that involvement look like? What are we looking at as far as a time commitment, or the nature of how you’re involved, what kind of meetings you’re attending, or a time commitment for judging, that kind of thing? What does that look like for someone who’s maybe interested in participating?

DK: For impactful involvement, I kind of look at this two ways: a company or employees could go the route of engaging directly with teams throughout their season and mentoring them through their design process, and as they work to develop things and as they work to learn things, and that could be weekly or monthly engagement for parts of the school year; but then there’s also that shorter term engagement where you come in at an event, and you’re that professional that’s interviewing and talking to the team, and getting them to share their information-that involvement is a day or two. So, it’s not like you have to ask employees to commit to hundreds of hours throughout the year to do things. Sometimes it’s eight hours and you can have impactful engagement, and kids can learn about what you do, and you can learn about what the kids are doing.

CLG: And that so often gets overlooked. When we talk about getting involved in schools, it’s “Oh gosh, I’m going to be doing something weekly for the duration of the school year.” The fact that you have opportunities to do these shorter engagements, what kind of relationships can that spark, and how can that inspire individuals who are getting involved, maybe it’s a one-time thing this year, but maybe down the line, they would be looking at a weekly or monthly engagement.

DK: Right, and so, one of the things is kids are sometimes so afraid to get involved in things, and even as adults sometimes, I think, we’re so afraid to get involved in things – we’re worried about time commitment, we’re worried about how much of a drain things are going to be. You can start small. Starting small shows you that it’s possible. You can make your engagement and involvement more as you want to throughout the years. You can start off by offering, if your team is interested, we’d like to have a design review with you guys, and you can use some of our engineers. That might be one meeting, but the team might get so much information out of that meeting that the employees in the company might say, “What if we mentor this team throughout their season? What if we mentored all of these teams in the area throughout their seasons?”

CLG: That’s awesome. That’s incredible. So, if you are giving the elevator pitch, if you’re in a room and talking to someone from a manufacturing company locally, and they say, “Oh that sounds cool, but I’m kind of on the fence,” what would you say about how companies and individuals can really benefit from participating in this way?

DK: I would start by emphasizing the idea that it can start small, right? It starts little – it’s one meeting, it’s one tour of a facility where you can get a team in or a group of students in to see what you guys do and engage with the kids, and have the kids engage with the employees. It doesn’t have to be the lifetime commitment of mentorship; many teams may not need that. And so, if I were to talk to a company if they were interested in mentoring teams in their areas, I would refer them to teams to start engaging with, or see if they would like to start by working at an event as a judge or as a referee, so they can engage with the students, see what they’re doing, get a better understanding of their program, and then, I would start to tailor from there.

One of the most amazing things about mentoring in general is when you can see that light switch on in the kids’ minds, and you can see they get more engaged, they get involved, they can start to see what’s going on around them, and start to grasp that from a different level. So many people in manufacturing and engineering learn by doing, and it’s been proven that so many kids also learn by doing. For kids, it’s hard to keep doing if you don’t have role models, if you don’t have peers that have done it and can kind of show you the way. So, having mentors come in that are adults, having employees come in and volunteer at events, it shows them that there’s a path – that they’re on a path, and it can lead somewhere. And we’re doing this to try to get more students engaged in STEM and get them to stay in STEM throughout their education years and as they go off to jobs, and be in STEM and technical fields. And then, we want them to come into our industries as well and how do we do that, and we have to show them what it means, right? We have to help show them the way. It doesn’t mean that every student’s going to come back and do it. That’s not necessarily what we’re looing for, but they’re going to be more likely to do it if they understand what it entails.

CLG: And equipped with skills that will help them no matter what career they ultimately pursue.

DK: Oh, yes definitely. I mean, every career uses teamwork and collaboration and compromising skills – every job.

CLG: So, noting that sometimes the first step is the hardest one to take, how could I, as a manufacturer, get involved? What’s the first way to reach out and make a connection locally? What would you suggest?

DK: I would suggest that a company looking to get involved to reach out to the regional partner or director. So, for elementary schools at K- through third-grade engagement, that would be me and my co-partner in Illinois. There are partners in every state, in every region, that can help connect employees and companies with the mentorship and volunteer opportunities that they would like and that are within their capabilities.

CLG: And it’s never too late, right? It’s not like, “Oh, the school year’s already started, I’ve got to wait until next September,” right?

DK: Oh, it is never too late. There are robotics programs that stretch throughout the year. Our middle-school program, our fourth- to eighth-grade program in Illinois, we’re in the middle of our season. We have tournaments starting in December, we have state tournaments in January, but we have teams that continue to go to events through July, and then in August, the season starts again. There is no break. It can keep going. And there’s even off-season mentorship, where students can come in and learn, which is huge. It keeps students engaged during the couple of months that they’re not doing robotics.

CLG: That’s awesome, so many possibilities, so many opportunities. Well, I want to say, Dee, thank you so much for joining me today and congratulations on your new role and best of luck going forward with the competition. For Manufacturing Tomorrow’s Workforce, I’m Christine LaFave Grace. Thanks, and have a great rest of your day.

AD: That’s Christine’s interview with Dee Karabowicz. For more information about how you can get involved in FIRST Robotics Illinois, visit www.firstillinoisrobotics.org/fll/volunteer.html, or simply click the link in the description of this episode.

Check back again in two weeks for the next installment of Manufacturing Tomorrow’s Workforce. Have a great day!

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